Definition and Overview

The liver is one of the most vital organs in the body that’s located on the right side of the belly. It continuously filters the blood that circulates the body making sure that it is free from impurities. It also detoxifies various metabolites and produces essential biochemical necessary for digestion. In addition, it converts nutrients, as well as drugs into ready-to-use chemicals. Unfortunately, the liver’s functions make it unusually accessible to cancer cells that are traveling in the bloodstream.

Liver cancer can be referred to as primary or cancer that starts from the liver itself or secondary (metastatic), which forms elsewhere in the body. As the liver is made up of different types of cells, the tumors that could form in or around it are varied. However, not all tumors that form in the liver are considered cancerous. Benign tumors can also form and can be surgically removed if they cause pain.

This article focuses on primary liver cancer or hepatocellular carcinoma that could cause more damage to the internal organs.

Causes of the Condition

There are several causes of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) or primary liver cancer. The most common are birth defects, alcohol abuse, hepatitis B and C, hemacromatosis, overproduction of androgen and estrogen hormones, obesity, and smoking.

Meanwhile, certain factors are proven to heighten the risk of liver cancer and these include gender (it’s more common in men than women), obesity, race and ethnicity (rate of liver cancer is higher in the United States due to their diet), and use of anabolic steroids. Rare diseases such as tyrosinemia, alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, and Wilson’s disease are also proven to trigger liver cancer.

Key Symptoms

Liver cancer typically does not exhibit symptoms in the early stages. If it does, the first symptoms are usually nonspecific. That is why, liver cancer patients rarely suspect that they have the condition until they have been examined thoroughly by a medical professional.

The symptoms listed below may or may not be an indication that you have a liver cancer. An ultrasound and a series of tests are necessary to confirm the condition. However, those who were diagnosed with liver cancer often complained of the following:

  • Substantial weight loss – if you lost more than 10% of your body weight and you were not even trying to lose weight, it could be an indication that there is something wrong with your body. Sometimes, it is an indication that you may have liver cancer. At other times, it could be an indication of thyroidal problems, or other factors that affect your metabolism. Most people diagnosed with primary liver cancer, though, experience unexplained and substantial weight loss.

  • Swelling in the abdomen – it is usual for individuals suffering from liver cancer to experience swelling in their abdomen because the liver itself could be getting bigger due to the formation of tumors. The swelling is usually on the right side of the abdomen. It can also be caused by ascites, or fluid buildup. If it’s a fluid buildup, the swelling is usually more spread out.

  • Jaundice – this is the apparent yellowing of your skin and the white parts of your eyes. Jaundice can sometimes make your skin itch as well. This happens when there is a blockage in your bile duct and when bile salts build up in your blood stream. Most of the time, jaundice is the first indication that there is something wrong with your liver. This condition can also be apparent in very young children, but it doesn’t always indicate liver cancer.

  • Other symptoms, which may also be indicative of other diseases, include loss of appetite that spans for weeks, itchiness, a bloated sensation, feeling unwell or sick to the stomach, worsening of hepatitis or liver cirrhosis, and sweating accompanied by high body temperature.

Who to see and types of treatments available

If you suspect that you have liver cancer or any problems with your liver, you should first see your family doctor or a general practitioner. Once it is confirmed that you have liver problems or liver cancer, you will be referred to a hepatologist or an oncologist. A hepatologist specializes in liver diseases, while an oncologist specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of different types of cancers.

To properly diagnose liver cancer, you will be asked to undergo the following:

  • Blood tests
  • Imaging tests
  • Biopsy to get a sample from your liver

There are common treatments for liver cancer but most of them are intrusive. These include:

  • Liver transplant surgery. This is the surgical removal and replacement of the damaged liver. This is an effective cure for liver cancer, but the chances of getting a donor are steep.
  • Freezing of cancer cells. This is also called cryoablation and it is used to destroy cancer cells.
  • Heating cancer cells – This is performed by inserting thin needles into the abdomen to destroy cancer cells through heating or electrocution.
  • Alcohol and chemotherapy drug injection.
  • Drug therapy
  • Radiation therapy

Alternative treatments are also available for those who wish to treat their liver cancer less intrusively. The results of these treatments are not guaranteed, though. They might be advised for those with early stages of liver cancer.

  • Acupuncture
  • Acupressure
  • Deep breathing
  • Massage
  • Music therapy
    References:

  • “What you need to know about liver cancer” - http://www.cancer.gov/Publications/patient-education/wyntk-liver-cancer

  • “Obesity, fatty liver and liver cancer” - http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15908310
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